This book is one of the best books I’ve read recently. The concept is not new: the idea of the second chance has come in many forms in novels. The Faustian pact with the Devil is one of the earliest, and the idea of parallel universes in which a different choice, the flap of a moth’s wings, altered how events developed, has been illuminating. The fascination with the ‘what if?’ What if the Germans won the second World War (they very nearly did at one point)? What if Khrushchev hadn’t blinked when Kennedy told him to get his missiles off Cuba? What if the English army had not been exhausted by marching all those miles to Hastings after defeating Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, and had routed the Normans? We would be speaking a completely different language. What if Dutch William had said No, when invited to take the English Crown? The English would have had a French Revolution. Perhaps, perhaps.
Ursula has many mishaps from her birth onwards. She dies, and begins again. Sometimes her life is short-lived, sometimes she achieves a lot, during a longer resurrection. The longest sequences are during the Second World War, where she plays various roles at night as support during the bombing, while carrying on a daytime job in Whitehall. These scenes have been researched well, and are convincing, although I am told that some of the detail is inaccurate. That doesn’t seem to me to affect the insight into what it must have been like. My father was in a reserved occupation during that war, his firm made timers for bombs, but he also was a member of the Air Raid Precautions team at night. He never talked to my mother or to us, his children, about what it was like, but one day I overheard him talking to a neighbour about the previous night, and, child though I was, I realised that what I had thought of as an adventure was not so at all. One day we got up to find the sky in the east bright red. It wasn’t the sun rising, it was Coventry burning. That was the only time I saw my father cry.
This novel recounts these events in an undramatic way that neverthless brings home the importance of the alternative path. The most elusive are the sequences where Ursula, a surprising member of Hitler’s entourage, does, or doesn’t, shoot Der Führer.
A character doesn’t have to die and come back, of course, although that makes it more dramatic. All the time we are choosing which path we follow. Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken puts it well:
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
and sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps a better claim,
because it was grassy and wanted wear.”
But what is so clever about this book is what you can look for in it. It uses some quite straightforward accounts of episodes to explore how character and personality are affected by what happens. Our genes influence who we are, but experience is important as well. How similar is the Ursula of one episode to the Ursula of another? Interesting character development is the mark of a good novel, and you can look at the characters and ask how they have developed. Does Ursula’s personality change? I’m not sure. I can imagine it doing so, but is that me doing my thing as the active reader? Sylvie, Ursula’s mother, is one of the most interesting characters, and her opinions and behaviour change as the novel unfolds and she ages. This isn’t a linear novel: some scenes are throwbacks to earlier times, and there are some difficulties in deciding if this is a 1920s version of whoever. But it is worth the effort. And Ursula? How consistent are her later thoughts and actions with her earlier ones? Sometimes they are, but sometimes they aren’t: there has been a divergence. The moth’s wings have flapped, but this is how Ursula could have changed.
It’s not just Ursula, of course, all of the characters in a novel, as in a life, choose different paths, but it’s been hard enough to follow Ursula’s death and resurrection, without having to follow similar events for everyone else as well. But that would be a fascinating challenge for a writer. Thinks!